Friday, August 24, 2012

A trip to heaven in Spiti: Delhi-Manali-Kaza-Tabo-Dhankar-Chandratal

Why is it that the most beautiful places on earth are scarcely known?
I heard of Chandratal for the first time a couple of months ago while planning for a vacation. On googling for images, I immediately fell in love with the place and eventually four of us friends decided to go on a 5-day trip to Chandratal and nearby places.

Our Itinerary
14th August: Leave for Manali from Delhi (night)
15th August: Reach and spend day in Manali
16th August: Leave for Kaza early morning - via Rohtang and Kunzum Pass. Reach in the evening.
17th August: Visit Dhankar and Tabo. Return to Kaza for night
18th August: Go to Chandratal. Spend day there and camp for the night.
19th August: Leave back for Manali. Leave for Delhi in the evening.
20th August: Reach Delhi (morning)

Manali (6730 feet)
The road to Manali from Delhi is beautiful i.e. if you wake up early enough to see the first sight of the rising sun on the back of cloud-laden mountains and flowing Beas. Right from early morning when we woke up till reach Manali which was about noon, Beas walked next to us - from a soothing stream to a turbulent thrashing spitting foam at different places.

Manali was a place we had been too before and it was as commercialized as ever with people screeching behind your ears and pestering you with cheap hotels offers. We decided to spend the evening in Solang Valley and went up there and impromptu decided to go paragliding.

For someone, who has never participated in any adventure sports; and has a fear of heights - this definitely wasn't a piece of cake. Scared to death, and asked to jump of a cliff; I came to my senses only when I was in the air and looked around.

And then it struck me. We are so crazy about capturing the best possible pictures, from different angles, posing to the best of our abilities. I realized that the best memories are ones that laugh at cameras pitifully. Cameras can't come close to even attempt to capture those.
(However human nature being what it is, we still took tons of pics on our trip.)

As I looked around clutching tightly to the parachute grip for my life; I saw glorious greenery on the gregarious mountains along with the Beas river flowing far down below looking miserably thin from far above. In the monsoons, Manali is especially beautiful and green with all the pine/conifer trees on its mountains. It is a sight which would be imprinted in my mind for ever.


The place from where we jumped for para-gliding. Those small dots in the bottom of the pic are actually huts a km or so below in Solang valley and our destination once we jumped.


Kaza (11800 feet)

We left early next morning (4am) for Kaza (a 10-12 hour drive) and the route passes through two high passes - Rohtang and Kunzum. Rohtang Pass at 13100 feet is 52 kms from Manali and is a heavy traffic area with muddy/slushy road conditions in monsoons and faces regular traffic jams. We were caught in one such for a couple of hours. It is advisable not to bravely take your own city vehicle to this place (at least in monsoons) as bravery only showcases foolishness here since simple vehicles are not being able to cross these roads with their low suspension and just cause jams.

On the other side of Rohtang is a rain-shadow area which means it barely rains there and the route from there onwards was a dust-bowl of rocks and dry swirling sand. The mountains on the other side of Rohtang at 13K feet looked across at us majestically clad in snow and hidden by clouds. That sight alone made my trip worthwhile. Little did I know, there were better things to come.

As the day progressed, we saw the brutal nature of those mountains - barely inhabitable we realized why the entire Spiti Valley (a Himachal district) has just a population of approximately 15K (two large gated communities might cover that number in cities).

The greenery reduced dramatically and we saw muddy/rocky and other variants of coloured mountains but never greenery. The Spiti river flows alongside these gigantic mountains which look coldly and proudly as you pass by them seemingly scornfully challenging you to attempt to make it your resting place.

We also passed the Kunzum Pass on our way which was the highest point travelled in our trip at 14931 feet.

View from Kunzum Pass

Finally after a long, arduous journey in our Sumo with multiple breaks, we reached Kaza at 4pm. The rest of the day was spent in acclimatizing to such height (make sure we didn't suffer AMS) and exploring the small town of Kaza inhabiting close to 2000 people.

One thing of note was that it requires a lot of bravery to live in such conditions. These towns - Kaza, Dhankar, Tabo are blocked for half a year and they stock up on supplies for six months around November. (Though there is another way via Shimla/Kinnaur).

As we neared Kaza



At night, we stepped out and accidentally looked upwards. You would have to take a measuring tape to find an inch of space which wasn't covered with glistening stars. The sky was stunningly beautiful and stuffed to capacity. Bright ones, faded ones, twinkling ones, lively ones and so on. You don't need Planetariums in Spiti. Just look upwards.
To add to all this, we saw a line of white in the middle of the sky densely covered with stars which was actually our Milky Way. Apparently this sight can only be seen from such sparsely populated hilly areas; or islands (where no nearby city lights) across the world.

Tabo (10760 feet)

Having established our base in Kaza in a hotel, we visited the village of Tabo the next day (hour and a half from Kaza). Tabo is a very small place with one of the oldest monastries - a place of note there which was created in 996 AD. We visited the quiet monastery but did not spend too much time in Tabo overall.


Dhankar (13570 feet)

Dhankar is another quaint town but at a much higher altitude that Tabo (hour and a half from Tabo), which has another extremely old monastry. We spent some time there but the main attraction there was Dhankar lake which is an hour's uphill trek from the town.
View of Dhankar


Two of us were already feeling varying effects of AMS; so only me and another friend decided to venture out on the trek to the lake. Not used to exercise at this altitude, we were soon panting while going uphill. However, we persevered and eventually reached the shimmering emerald green Dhankar lake in the evening.
We were the only ones around the lake along with a couple of locals. The crystal calm of the lake soothed us and we were willing to spend hours there. We just lay down listening to soothing sound made by the water movement and wondering why did we have to go back.

Resting at Dhankar lake after the uphill trek

At times like these, one may ask what is so special about Dhankar and Chandratal lakes that you wouldn't see in Sankey Tank/ Ulsoor lake (Bangalore) or Hussain Sagar/ Osman Sagar (Hyderabad); I would be stumped to give an answer. Let's just say, forget the purity of the water at a place thankfully away from too much human impact; forget even the gladiatorial mountains in the background which make for a picturesque viewing; its just the sereneness of these places which literally made me want to gaze into the water and get lost for ever.

View while climbing down from Dhankar Lake in the evening. Rain-clouds hovering over Kaza which thankfully exploded the next day after we left Kaza.


Chandratal (14100 feet)

And when we felt we have seen all that is possible, in cometh Chandratal. We left for Chandratal from Kaza the next day (a five hour drive) crossing Kunzum pass back and reached around 1pm.
The route to Chandratal is especially beautiful with Chandra river flowing alongside and the stretch is covered with ridiculously artificially painted mountains. As if a child painted them, and she wasn't told by her teacher that mountains are only meant to be boringly brown.

We stopped the Sumo at a 20 minute walk from Chandratal beyond which the vehicle couldn't go further. It had rained the previous night in the nearby areas of Kaza, and the first astonishing thing Chandratal noon sky greeted us with was a circular rainbow (an optical halo). After having lunch from a nearby tent (there is no scope of proper habitation there); we went out to catch our first glimpse of Chandratal.
As a side note, let me mention that Maggi at 15K feet is a lot tastier than when having it sitting at sea level in our cemented houses on a boring day when there is nothing else to eat.

 
Circular Rainbow / Optical Halo at Chandratal

No amount of google images or a sense of expectation could have prepared us for that sea of absolute stunning blue that greeted us in the afternoon. If we were left wondering at Dhankar lake why do we live in cities; at Chandratal we were nearly about to forego everything and settle there for ever.

After gawping the lake for some time, we lazed around, took lots of photos; and walked across the circumference. On the other side, we realized it was even more beautiful with snow clad mountains visible in the distance.
As I read the above description of what I 've just written about Chandratal, I am filled with a sense of hopelessness and inadequacy of words about how to describe heaven. You 've to experience it rather than read about it.
A hard choice to choose just one Chandratal pic. This is just one of many exotic ones, not claiming this to be best.

After spending what felt like minutes (but were actually three-four hours); we regretfully proceeded back up to set up our tents (a piece of advice: make sure your guide knows how to set up tents). You aren't allowed to camp next to the lake which is probably all for the better - humans really don't have a right to mess up that place.


                          A panoramic view of Chandratal taken towards evening.

We camped the night there, and went for a quick glimpse of the lake the next morning 5.30 am before leaving the place. The lake was black in colour (reflections off the adjacent dark mountains) giving some kind of slope effect which I didn't understand. As the sun rose behind further away snow-mountains away from the lake; it gave an unreal effect.

We regretfully left Chandratal; made our way back to Manali crossing Rohtang pass (without traffic jams this time); and reached around 2pm.

Thereafter, tired yet delighted with all that we achieved over the trip; we headed back to Delhi via bus in the evening.

Word of Caution

Road trips over hilly areas aren't planned such that x distance over 2 lane road at y km/hr can be covered in z time. There are landslides and mud and roads get routinely blocked for hours or days. If snow, then all the tougher. We heard of other stories before our trip which had ended in failure to reach Chandratal. Chandratal - between Rohtang and Kunzum is anyways blocked for majority of the year - however even during June-September (not sure if these are exact months) when it is open; you could easily hit roadblocks. The day after we left Kaza, we heard Kaza being blocked because of rainfall.

However, if you want to just stroll into heaven without making any effort you better think again. We were just plain lucky to have the gods on our side.


For further pictures visit this link.

Route:

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15 comments:

  1. Sounds like a very fun and exciting trip....looking forward to visiting Chandratal one day

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  2. Mamu... awesome trip. Its now on my to-do list

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  3. Manali is one of the toursit places in Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Naturally very popular Manali Tour Package Kullu Valley is in addition reputed to be the "Valley of Divine bings". Separated structure beautiful delightfulness, rich green scenes, exuberant valleys, and so forth you will moreover have brilliant opening to see here a few temples.

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  6. Wow, great article, I really appreciate your thought process and having it explained properly, thank you!

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  7. and hoe much money can afford this trip ? plz pz reply.............

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  8. Hi Nitin,
    Our trip cost a total of ~15K. You can get packages from Manali to Chandratal (including other places) and back for ~8-10K. The rest (for us) included travel to and fro Delhi, food etc..
    -Arun

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  9. Hi, We are planning a trip to CHANDARTAL. From where did you get the bookings done for trekking and camping

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    Replies
    1. Hi Ankita,
      I dug up some two year old details and here they are - We booked the entire tour via Ecosphere Spiti Agency. Contact details: Ishita +91 94-18-860099.
      Essentially after that trip, and a few more, what we realized is you can either go via an operator or plan everything on your own. Going via an operator may be mostly 2-3K extra instead of had you done it on your own, but spares you the hassle of planning.
      All the best for your trip!

      Delete


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